COLOMBO (AFP) — Sri Lanka's massive offensive against Tamil rebels is taking longer than expected because of concerns for civilians trapped in the battle zone, President Mahinda Rajapakse said on Tuesday.
Rajapakse said his security forces were "fighting under severe constraints to cause no harm or loss to innocent civilian human life".
"The battle against terrorism, which we could convincingly win within a few days, is nevertheless prolonged due to the grave concern and the optimum caution exercised by the highly disciplined armed forces," he said in remarks published in the state-run Daily News.
His statement came a day after the defence ministry admitted scores of its troops had been killed or injured in fighting with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) over the weekend.
The ministry said Tuesday that troops had edged closer to the rebels' northern capital of Kilinochchi.
The bodies of three soldiers missing in action since Saturday were found, raising the military's toll to 36 dead and 48 injured, the ministry said in a statement.
"Troops thrashed LTTE battle formations and pushed ahead amidst heavy resistance and torrential monsoon rains," the ministry said.
The capture of Kilinochchi, north of the main military frontline, will have major significance, it said.
"The fall of Kilinochchi will not just be a symbolic victory as reported by some foreign news agencies," the ministry said, adding it would signal a bigger military wave to sweep the guerrillas from their positions.
Rajapakse accused the LTTE of using "human shields" in the fighting.
"We have directed the armed forces to refrain from inflicting any harm, even a scratch, to the innocent civilians who are being utilised as human shields by the terrorists," he said.
"We are proud to have an army which is complying and carrying out their humanitarian operations accordingly."
Government forces say they are 10 to 15 kilometres (six to 10 miles) southwest of Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE, but had breached the town's major defences.
Neighbouring India, which itself has a large Tamil population, has expressed "grave concern" over the plight of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians caught up in fighting in the island's north.
New Delhi has told Colombo a military solution to the long-running conflict is impossible.
But Rajapakse said in a meeting with local newspaper editors Tuesday that India had not exerted any undue pressure to halt the military operations.
"In the telephone conversation with the Indian Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh last week) there was no reference to the stopping of military operations against the terrorism of the LTTE," his office said in a statement.
Rajapakse "had made it very clear the operations were against the LTTE," the statement added.
It added the former de facto number two Tiger leader, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, who led a split in the LTTE in March 2004, joined the president in his meeting with editors and wanted the military campaign to continue.
Government forces wrested control of the eastern province in July 2007 with the help of Muralitharan, better known as Colonel Karuna, and his breakaway Tiger faction.
Since then, Karuna has been appointed a lawmaker in Rajapakse's ruling party.
Tens of thousands of people have died on both sides since 1972 when the LTTE launched its campaign to carve out an independent state in the Sinhalese-majority island of 20 million people.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »